How do you run an RPG? What separates the Dungeon Master/Storyteller/Keeper from the commonfolk? What mysteries allow them to do what they do? Well there is no mystery. Anyone can run a game, a campaign, an empire. All it takes is a little preparation and a lot of notetaking.
However not everyone wants to run a game. Some people just don't want the hassle. Sometimes you have a group of people who want to play a game but nobody wants to run. In that case it's up to you, yes you reading this right now, to step up and run the game. Then foist the job on the person to your left after a few weeks.
That's a slightly different matter. For now let's assume you do want to run a game, you're just mystified by how. After all that pre-amble, here's the short version.
What you need:
1. A Hook. A campaign or session starts with an idea, expressed in one line. Let's play Cat Pirate Zombies! Let's run through Tomb of Horrors. A deep and challenging exploration of the meaning of life after death. It has to appeal to you, it has be short and it has to appeal to others. Those are separate things.
2. A Pitch. A pitch is a one-page version of the hook. It describes the game in slightly more detail. What is the plot, what world is it set in, what type of characters are needed. It's an advertisement for your game. If you're looking for players this will go up on Roll20 or at your local gaming store. Otherwise it will help build hype with your existing players. Past the first page it can include character creation info, like what level characters start at.
3. The Ruleset
As the Game Master you have to adjudicate on every rules question that comes up and be able to look up anything you don't know about the game. For this you need quick access to every single rulebook you're using. If you don't have a rule available then you shouldn't be allowing it in your game. Players who want to bring in optional expansions or third party material must provide you with a copy.
3. Reference Sheets
These are your own compiled notes, however you organise them. They contain your notes on the plot, the world, the NPCs and any events that have happened. You might use an excel document, an app or a pile of loose pages. Everything the players do or happen in the gamer should go here. You must take notes. If you don't like doing that you will have a hard time running a game.
Players love maps. You might use a street map of Detroit for your party of zombie apocalypse survivors. You might sketch the islands the players are sailing toward. Maps can be made, borrowed or even bought. Players love maps though, they give a sense of spatial awareness so try to make maps, even if you only have mspaint.
These are the things you need for running a game but how do you actually run an individual session? In military terms this is the tactical level, as opposed to the operational level.
How you should run a session:
1. Go in with a plan. Have an idea for what you want to accomplish this session. The players should case the joint they drove to last session. They should finish their journey across the great desert. The session will flow much better when you have a target and also when you communicate this target to them. This doesn't mean directing them. It leads into the next point.
2. Go with the flow. The players are the actors, you're just setting the scene. If they decide to bail because there's too many guards, give them the opportunity to follow up on a note one guard dropped. If they charge in against overwhelming odds, have them captured and forced to escape a cell. Don't kill them if they mess up but don't let them think you want them to survive. It's a balancing act.
3. Take notes. These notes should go into your Reference Sheets either as you take them down or after the session when you can collate them. But that cop the players annoyed with too many questions? They may come see him again and the cop should remember how much he hates them. Write everything down.
4. Be aware of the players as well as the characters. Players will disagree sometimes, or they'll be bored or even hostile. Unfortunately as you're the adjudicator in-game you'll often end up adjudicating out-of-game. It's not something conscious, somehow you end up being the one they take their issues with each other too. Try to remain neutral. Keep the focus on the game. In an ideal world they can channel anger, dislike or even apathy into their character to make for a more compelling game. A bitter player can poison a whole game though so if someone has a real problem, take them aside, hear them out and decide if you can help them.
Too long you say? Well that was the short version. Stay tuned for where I talk more about the philosophy of running games.