I am a relatively new DM...okay I actually haven't ever RUN a campaign. The closest I have come to was running a short, 2-encounter dungeon against Manticores and a Raksasha that summoned a Grey Render to attack the PCs. While this was memorable and enjoyable, I want to move on to running a full DnD campaign.

The problem is...I actually don't do a lot of dice-based RPing. I mostly freeform, and most of the campaigns I'm in are light-rules in any case, so I'm worried I won't make a good impression on my players due to lack of unfamilarity with the way a more rules-stringent system goes.

To be specific, I'm planning to do a 3.5e or Pathfinder campaign, since most people know those rules pretty well.

But I'm afraid there are differences in running such a game that I will run into like a brick wall, that I am unprepared for or unaware of. So, how can I prepare for a rules-focused game, when previously I have largely only been a player or a freeform-dungeon master?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Related question, and my answer to it has my standard advice to new GMs who don't really know what it means to be the GM. In short, read Greg Stolze's free PDF guide to GMing, and learn how to set up the game. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 17, 2013 at 15:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ Every GM starts somewhere, and no GM knows all the rules. Dive right in, the best way to start learning is by doing. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eric B
    Commented Oct 17, 2013 at 15:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ First time GM? Do a heavy rules campaign until you dream the rules in your sleep. Perhaps even having nightmares about the rules :> After a while you will be able to freeroam, even houserule stuff. \$\endgroup\$
    – Discipol
    Commented Oct 17, 2013 at 15:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ See also: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/6212/… \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Oct 17, 2013 at 17:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ I urge you, before you become too invested in 3.5, look through the [game-recommendation] questions on this site and see if there's one that fits your objectives more ably. Beware the sunk cost fallacy. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 18, 2013 at 4:30

5 Answers 5


Don't get caught up in the rules; do what makes sense first.

While you are correct in your assessment that D&D is a rules-heavy game, the rules do not need to be followed to the letter to create an enjoyable game. Following the rules stringently can actually have the opposite effect; players begin "rules lawyering," or arguing with the GM on principle of rules, not roleplaying.

As a GM, it is your job to create an enjoyable game. As you are used to freeform play, I will assume you understand what this means and (at least at a general level) how to do it. Rules as a whole can be thought of as building off, not leading to roleplay. As such, rules perform a couple important primary tasks:

  • Rules change the feel of a game. This is arguably the most important function of rules. All RPGs have their own unique feels. When you read through the D&D rulebook, make sure to pay attention to what kind of game it's designed to be, and play into that in your games.

  • Rules keep a game balanced and in check, in accordance with the above point. Systems strive for different balances, and don't do as well if you attempt to pull away from that balance. D&D is a high-magic, high-power game, and trying to make it anything else (while it could possibly work) probably won't work well.

So, what does this mean for your game? Caveat: Just because you can fudge rules doesn't mean you can ignore them.

It's okay to fudge non-critical rules in RPGs occasionally, so long as you're keeping to the intent of the game. Don't waste your and your players' time looking up rules if you don't absolutely have to. To that point, familiarize yourself with the fundamental rules (damage, HP, weapons, range, combat steps, etc.) so that you don't need to look up the rules frequently.

If you honestly don't know what to do in a given situation, see if you can find the rules quickly. Remember though that time you spend seeking rules is time of your players' that you're wasting. Pick something that makes sense and matches the game's feel, and remember that the game isn't about rules.

Take a look at the following relevant questions for more information:

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 in particular for directly addressing the core of the question (how to transition from freeform; what pitfalls are particular to that transition) instead of getting caught up in giving generic new-GM advice. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 17, 2013 at 16:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ "No such thing as D&D" is such a great article. Thanks for reminding me it exists. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 22, 2013 at 17:39

Things that Have Not Changed

Trusting your players is Crucial

This is likely to be easier for you, as a freeform player used to using only trust and social contract to decide what happens in the game, than for many long-time players of rules-heavy systems: the rules do not protect you from abusive players, and you must trust your players just as much with a rules-heavy system as for a freeform game.

Note that even for well-meaning players, the rules can seem to give license to various things that can ruin your game – and also that unless the group talks about what they want and expect from the game, it’s unclear what rules can be counted on to be in effect and reliable for basing a character’s power upon, and which rules technically allow actions you do not want or are too much for your game.

Your players must trust you

This hasn’t changed either. Particularly since you are new to the system, and you cannot stop the game to look up a rule all the time, you’re going to have to make uninformed decisions about various rulings. Wherever possible, build upon this trust by trusting your players, and allowing their interpretations (at least until you sit down and read the rule yourself, after the game), so that you can, when necessary, choose to rule against them.

Story, plot, tone, and characterization remain king

All the skills you have from freeform roleplaying will serve you very well DMing a rules-heavy game. These skills are the things that bring the rules to life and make the game worth playing. It’s important for you to know that these things remain just as important; don’t assume that just because you’re playing a rules-heavy game, you need to make the game about the rules. The rules are there only to facilitate play.

Things that Have Changed

The rules dictate a lot of the setting

Playing Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder means you have a lot of rules for things like stabbing a goblin in new and interesting ways, looting long-lost tombs of their mysterious wonders for fun and profit, and so on, but quite a few less rules, and less detailed rules, for things like setting up a bakery, courting the princess, or piloting a starship. The books describe the societies of elves and orcs and humans and halflings in great detail, but not so much how any of them would handle outer-space colonies (well, at least in the default material; Dungeons & Dragons did have the Spelljammer setting in 2e) or an industrial revolution (though again, you could use Eberron for that).

Your choice of system constrains the sort of game you can play. Dungeons & Dragons tries to be fairly generalist (though I’d claim that they assert far more generalization than they actually offer), but ultimately it is high-magic, fairly high-power, and very much about fantastical adventures. While it can be forced to play other sorts of games, and even handles some variations pretty well, there are usually other systems designed with other priorities in mind that may handle a different sort of game better than Dungeons & Dragons would.

Your players have to rely on the rules to accomplish things

The actions available to your players are listed in the books, with associated action costs, resource usages, and so on. While they can (and should) come to you to discuss how to handle actions not discussed in the rules, or that maybe the rule here is a bit too punitive for someone who should be good at something (or, on the flip side, how the rules make something difficult a bit too easy, though only very honest players are likely to bring that up), they cannot, under the rules, make those decisions for themselves.

The significance of this, for you, is that you have to allow the rules to function in some fashion or another. If none of the rules function as written, then the players are not able to do anything reliably and won’t know how to take their turns. You can, of course, replace any rules you like (the so-called Rule 0), but if you find yourself doing it a lot, then that may be a sign that you should look for a different system.

So you need to get used to the idea, particularly with players with more system mastery than you, that they are going to do things you didn’t realize they could, and maybe you wouldn’t have thought they should be able to do. You will, at times, need to choose to change the rule; the rules are not perfect. But you have to bear in mind the limitations that the players are under, and make sure any ruling you make is for the good of the game. If someone’s abusing a cheap rule and it’s ruining the game, you have to change it. If someone does something unexpected, and it wipes out the supposedly-tough boss way more easily than you expected, eh. It’s a learning experience and gives the player a chance to be awesome. You just have to keep in mind that a balance between these two things is necessary.

You are also somewhat limited

You have the authority to add, remove, or change any rule in the game, but ultimately the system only works well if you’re actually using it. Thus, while you definitely should make changes as necessary to accomplish the game you want, you should probably think about your new rules in terms of fitting them into the system as a whole. If you want to add a new ability for characters who have no magic at all to throw off magical effects, you need to figure out if that’s going to be a Saving Throw or a Skill Check, or whatever else, what the DC is, how often they can do that, etc.

You will have to read and learn

This kind of goes without saying, but it is new, and it is important: to use a system, you need to know its rules. You do not, however, have to know every nitty-gritty detail. Remember: trust your players, and expect them to trust you. Trust them to know how their characters work, and expect them to trust you when you tell them that no, at least until you get to know the rule better, you’re not going to allow that to work quite that way. Focus on the basic rules, and know those, and have a general gist of how the players’ abilities work (“OK, so he trips a lot, so expect guys to get knocked down a lot,” and “she casts spells, so she’ll have a big effect on things every now and then, but she only can a few times per day”), but otherwise just run with things. It’s the only way to really learn, at the end of the day.

Preparing encounters

As a DM, rather than just another player in a group freeform RPG, you need to think about the entire world around the players, and that means knowing who they’re going to see, and if you expect them to fight any of these characters or monsters, what they can do. You should not try to learn the entire system at once, but rather learn the rules relevant to each encounter and in that way gradually build up knowledge of the system.

To this end, look around online; it can be a fantastic source of information on the system. Unfortunately, with Wizards’ recent reformat of their message boards, finding a lot of the old information about 3.5 is very difficult, but you can. There are also numerous other boards. You can much more quickly learn the system by reading tutorials, articles, and the like than by trying to read through all the rules and synthesize the conclusions yourself (you do, of course, also have to go back and read the rules).

And take advantage of talking with other, more experienced players: you can join us in the Chat, or in another D&D chatroom (I spend a lot of time in #giantitp for example) for help, but it might be even better if you know someone with skill levels and experiences similar to your players, but not playing the game. Or you could really go all-in on Number One, and get your players to help build enemies (this will potentially ruin a lot of surprise, though, unless you get creative with how you spring them on the players suddenly when they aren’t expecting that thing).

  • \$\begingroup\$ With thanks to @SevenSidedDie; his comment on Emrakul’s answer helped me to greatly improve this answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Oct 17, 2013 at 20:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a very interesting and thorough answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – user8248
    Commented Oct 17, 2013 at 23:10

Know the skills

A big gap between rules and freeform is that every system will have skills defined that players can point into. DnD is the most straight forward, but as you move to other systems you'll find some things that systems make skills for, some don't. This reflects the game's idea of what things should have shortcuts, or be more competitive than narrative.

For instance, some games have Contacts/Research/SocialInvestigation (or similarly named) skills or abilities that represent a player's ability to an answer to their problem, or the identity of an unknown person. For those systems, the narrative approach to describing those searches is up to the player, to add flavor rather than facilitate the action. For systems that don't have such a skill, the player is meant to roleplay it out as a means of doing the action. Generally, if the system provides a skill for something, it's meant to be used.

Don't roll for something boring

Best conversation I've had at the gaming table goes as follows:

[in reference to another newer player taking actions]
Me: Doesn't she have to roll [x skill]?
GM: No
Me: Huh?
GM: It wouldn't be interesting if she failed.

Almost every good system has this idea in there : you shouldn't roll out something if there isn't roleplaying potential in both outcomes, nor should you roll for a sure thing. Your character doesn't make normally balance checks when walking down the stairs because it's something assumed that everyone can beat every time. Similarly a mage doesn't always have to cast magic rolls for casting small utility spells. Sure, there's a chance she could flub it, but the results of flubbing it aren't always interesting enough to justify slowing the session down.

That said, Don't slow the session down

Know the basic flow of most of the rules, and then if you don't remember a specific one, make something up. Most of the time the players won't even notice and will be completely ok with it. If they aren't, talk to them and point out that the goal is to run with minimal interruptions checking rules details, unless it's something really important. Matters of life and death are usually a good time to double check rules, but most other times players will appreciate this approach.

Don't be afraid to make up new possibilities

Only the most permissive systems cover everything. If you're used to freeform, you're going to run into problems in rules-oriented play where someone has a really cool idea that the rules don't really give a possibility for. Stretch the rules and approximate the best possible way to let it happen anyways. Good ideas should be rewarded. The best DnD game i played in had a lot of this, and it led good places.

Places like setting a gatehouse on fire, battering ramming the weakened gate open with a large cart, and then zooming downhill on the cart which had too much momentum and was now going down a steep incline at high speed, with one player desperately trying to steer away from obstacles while another fought with an npc ontop of the cart. It was awesome, and it's what GMs should facilitate happening.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Make something up" -- 1000x this. If you're wrong and nobody notices, who cares? If you're wrong and you have a Rules Nazi who points it out and it makes a difference, then you have the choice between saying 'Yeah, you're right', or 'My game, my rules'. Just go for whatever makes the game the most entertaining for all involved. To quote Pirates of the Caribbean "they're more like guidelines anyways" \$\endgroup\$
    – Ross Aiken
    Commented Oct 18, 2013 at 0:18

Decide what this game will be like

Is this also going to be a rules-light game? Or are you aiming to follow the rules as written? Either choice is a legitimate one.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

If it's going to be a rules-light game, let folks know that up front. Choose players who want that and don't be afraid to let a rules-focused friend know it might not be a good fit for them.

If it's going to be your first rules-as-written game, make sure you remind folks of that up front. Ask them for patience and let them know how you want to handle situations where none of you knows the rule, and ones where they believe the rule is something other than what you just said.

Handling the rules, if you decide to go Rules As Written

Try as best as you're able to read up on the relevant rules for a given encounter beforehand. At the same time know that in a system like Pathfinder or 3.x with many detailed rules, inevitably you'll find yourself in situations where you don't know, so...

Decide how you want to handle rules questions

If no one knows the rules, do you want to pause to research right now? Or do you want to just make a call this time and look it up later, for next time? In the end the right answer is whatever works for you and your players, though spending too much time reading through rules books alienates or bores many folks.

If you make a ruling, and a player disagrees, what do you want them to do? Here's a nice question that deals specifically with that, and my more detailed suggestions there as to how to have this conversation with your group.

General Advice For New GMs

Then, (as he mentioned in a comment) read SevenSidedDie's excellent general advice for new GMs, and check out the new-gm and new-players tags for other relevant questions and conversations.

Last of all, have fun! GMing can be a great experience. Give yourself some slack and you learn it, and enjoy the process!


One of the best things you can do to prepare is to learn the system yourself. The easiest way to break people out of role playing is to get bogged down with rules. Being a DM and player for over 7 years I have the following specific pieces of advice.

  1. Minimize the amount of time you spend at the table looking at a book. Try creating a quick reference sheet you can refer to that contains any rules that may come up often, or get a DM screen with quick reference rules on the inside. As for monsters try writing their most important stats on note cards (AC, HP, saves, etc) and don't wait until the game to understand how they fight and how their abilities works.
  2. Ask the players to understand their characters. One of the things I hate the most is when players build a character and then don't know how anything their character does works. For example I once had a player who built a wizard and he gave me his list of every spell in his spell book and what he was preparing. When combat started every spell he said he wanted to cast he asked me how the spell works or what it does. This can slow the game to a halt, and when the game is slow players get bored and their minds will wander from the game.
  3. If you are going to be changing any of the rules of your system, reffed to as house rules, tell your players in advance. As a player I hate it when I put so much effort into building a character and understanding its abilities, as well as the core mechanics of the game only to be told at the last possible second by the DM that he has a different way of doing it. It makes me have to step back and rethink the whole game and my character.

TLDR: If you understand the system and your monsters/dungeon, and the players understand the system and their characters, and any changes you make to the rules are stated ahead of time then the rules will almost just be in the background.

Eliminate the need to ask rules questions and the need to look up rules.


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