Need Help DMing for Casuals

The What: a good, simple, and free pen and paper role playing rule set available online.

The Why: a few of my coworkers thought it would be fun to start playing Dungeons and Dragons! I have fairly limited experience playing pen and paper RPGs, but I’ve had fun in the past, so I thought I’d join them. It looks like I’m the second most experienced player in the group (which isn’t saying much), and I’ve been asked to be DM. Only one other person in the group has ever played D&D, but he is DMing for another group right now so doesn’t want to DM. I’m totally down to DM and I’m looking forward to it.

I’m pretty sure the other players have no idea what they’re getting themselves into, or what the cost is for the basic Dungeons and Dragons supplies (rule book, dice, etc.), or how in depth RPing can actually get. So I’m wanting to find a good, introductory set of rules that I can use for at least a few weeks so that everybody can get their feet wet. Something with character creation, and basic rules for combat.

I know I can just google stuff, but I thought I’d contact the hive-mind here and see if anybody has any experience with anything like that, or anything they’d recommend. I have plenty of dice I can share, so dice type/quantity shouldn’t be a problem. We’ll be playing for 2-3 hours once a week (at least for now). Feel free to ask further questions if you need more information.

D&D 5e is a free PDF and very easy to play from a crunch standpoint. I would certainly suggest it if the group is into fantasy. Really I think the most important thing to do is to meet with the group and see what type of wetting they are interested in and then work from there. RPing will be a lot smoother if the setting and characters capture everyone’s imagination.

My only other advice is to “yes and”. It’s important to remember that nothing the players do is “wrong” but it can and often does have consequences.

There’s lots of great information in this thread, from D&D alternatives to advice on how to treat your players to how to plan a longer campaign (should you get that far).

I’m starting to get a DM itch and am in the preparations to commence scratching. If you don’t mind reading a ton of material, this blog, The Angry DM, has a text’s worth of advice that sounds pretty good to a guy that hasn’t DMed before. So does this one, DMDavid. There are a ton of other blogs with great-sounding advice out there.

There are also a ton of random generators and cheat sheets, even for the new edition on the block!

Need help making encounters? or loot? or knowing what spells do what? or coming up with fantasy names or cities or kingdoms or dungeons? Et cetera, et cetera.

Good luck!

I think if they’re interested in D&D, then give them what they are asking for. Particularly from what I’ve heard about 5th ed. (and others here are confirming), it is not an overwhelming system, and as DM you have the prerogative to round off the harsh edges. I’ll also reiterate that understanding your group and what they are looking for in the game is essential. Do a little informal interview, asking them what sounds cool about D&D and what kind of stories they want to tell. They might be looking to fight stuff and get loot; they might be looking for a story of heroism or a story of moral ambiguity; they might be really excited to just goof around and use their imagination. Then try to tailor what you’re doing to what you gather.

If this analogy makes sense, I think they’re interested in D&D in the same way somebody who wants to get into watching MMA likes UFC. It is the only thing they’ve heard of. Thats the only reason I don’t feel really tied to doing D&D, but if they have basic rules available for it online, and it is good like everybody is saying, why not? (And I just spent a couple minutes looking at whats provided for free and that actually looks pretty great.)

Thanks for the great input so far. I’ll try touching base with them. As silly as it might sound, I hadn’t really thought of “Hey, what kind of adventure do THEY want to do?” If I had to guess they probably just want to goof around, but we’ll see.

Good looking links, Djscman. I’ll have to read up on The Angry DM when I have some time to kill.

No worries on this count. Most D&D campaigns start out Lord of the Rings but wind up Quest for the Holy Grail. :D

I remember a very good Call of Cthulhu game that could best be described as the keystone cops facing off against the eldritch horror. :D

The important thing is that people have fun and trying to take things too seriously can kinda kill that sometimes. Or a group could want to be super serious. The great thing about RPG’s is that there is no “right” way to play, or more to point the “right” way to play is the way everyone in the group wants to play. (If issues arise generally it is when there is some disagreement on that point)

Also I would suggest maybe talking a bit about what an RPG really is: Basically it is a collaborative storytelling medium where randomizers (usually dice) are used to ensure that no one knows the outcome and it can be a surprise to all the tellers of the story.

If you want to listen to an example a great game I suggest this:

It’s not D&D but a game called Legend of the Five Rings which is based in a fantasy medieval Japan. (Which is the game I most like to run, despite some very crunchy rules)

Some neat free RPGs:
Everyone is John, a free three page game where one person is the GM and everyone else plays voices in John’s head trying to get control in order to achieve their particular insane goals.
Cthulhu Dark, rules-light Lovecraftian horror.
Old School Hack, a rules-light attempt to get back to the old school charms of D&D.

Also, Fate Core and Fate Accelerated Edition are, I think, both pay-what-you-want, including free, and relatively straightforward and narrativist, though a step up in complexity from the above. Also super flexible and workable for a lot of different genres.
I’d personally probably steer clear of D&D proper unless they express a desire for a crunchier and more simulationist approach, and specifically a fantasy dungeon-crawling oriented one.

Nice. I’m working my way through Nerd Poker (D&D with comedian Brian Posehn and friends) right now, but I’ll definitely check that out when I’m caught up.

Malkav, those are some pretty neat recommendations. Everyone is John sounds hilarious. Have you played it yourself?

I will second Fate Core (and particularly Accelerated as a “getting to know each other” game) as a great system I’m currently GMing a scifi campaign (loosely based on Star Control 2) with (I also run a weekly Pathfinder fantasy game in a homebrew world). Fate is primarily about storytelling and less about simulationism, which is cool insofar as there are fewer rules, fewer ways to “break” the game, and lots of incentives to make things up, do whatever feels cool, and keep the players’ characters and stories front and center, rather than just railroading them through a pre-set story with a bunch of pre-made encounters.

It’s based on using 4 6-sided dice per player (they sell special “Fudge”/Fate dice with the proper +s, -s, and blanks on them, but you can just use plain old D6s from any board game on earth) to roll for Skill checks, then applying bonuses on a few player skills and cool, self-written “Aspects” (things like “Strongest Man in the World” and “Infamous Thief of the Emerald Star”). It adapts very well to any setting you can imagine.

Like malkav said, it’s available for free (both Core and Accelerated are here:, and there is a free online SRD–rules wiki–as well here: The primary difference between them is that Accelerated has six “Approaches” (things like Forceful, Sneaky, and Flashy) that you act via; some characters are more forceful, others more subtle, etc. Core, on the other hand, has a full Skill list instead–Fight, Burglary, Deceive, etc. It’s marginally more complex, but still easy to learn.

If you like the rules-light, story-game aspect, but want something pre-built to support a dungeon crawl, consider Dungeon World, which also has its ruleset available online for free (, while an organized digital rulebook is quite cheap @ $10 (DriveThruRPG). It is based on “moves” like “Defy Danger” “Hack and Slash,” and “Discern Realities,” plus more, class-specific moves. All the classic fantasy tropes like Fighters, Wizards, Clerics, and Thieves are there, plus plenty of classic baddies. In it, players make all the calls–the GM is just there to respond to their stories and the dice themselves. It’s a very cool system, but one that my group hasn’t wanted to dig into just yet, so I haven’t gotten to run a session yet, so I’m hesitant to give it as full-fledged a recommendation as I am Fate.

Our own Jason Lutes wrote a very cool old-school scenario for the system, available here: DriveThruRPG

Another option is to go hardcore old-school with an “OSR” retroclone, which replicate one or more of the old D&D systems with minor modifications. Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry are both freely available, IIRC. The former has a version based on AD&D; both have versions based on OD&D (original 70s version). Other common ones include OSRIC (another AD&D clone) and Adventurer, Conqueror, King, which replicates “B/X” (Basic/Expert) OD&D with added rules for kingdom building.

These cut out a lot of the complexity that settled into D&D around 3/3.5/PF/4E and return to pure, dungeon-delving, monster-hacking roots. Since there are so few rules comparatively, they’re pretty simple to learn and leave lots of room for improvisation and making cool, in-the-moment GM decisions, but on the other hand, they are pretty brutal if run “true” to the rules as written. Expect lots of party wipes against randomly rolled skeletons and orcs in the early days!

In the modern era of D&D, I’ll echo most everyone else and say that I’ve been phenomenally impressed by 5E. It gets back to some of the glory days of OD&D/2EAD&D (simplified classes, combat, etc.), with some of the enhancements of 3.5 (tons of cool skills), plus some of the better stuff from 4E (limited “free” healing, cool always-available powers for most characters), some cool stuff “stolen” from story-games like Dungeon World (like mechanically involved Traits/Flaws/Backgrounds for each character to enhance roleplaying possibilities), and plenty of its own additions. The free Basic version is great, and with the DMing guidelines and monster rules released recently, you can play a good campaign with it!

On the other hand, it’s not out fully yet, and so some things (e.g., many magic item rules) are not available at this time. When they are, I’d recommend it fully to anyone wanting to get started, having really enjoyed my time playing it with Rob O’Boston and several other posters here. It’s medium-complexity, but adapts very well if you want to go super-tactical or super-not.

If your players secretly love crunchy rules systems, complicated characters, tons of customization, and oodles of weird rules to tinker with, I’ll also put Pathfinder into the pot. It’s based on D&D 3.5, so it’s got some of its flaws (invulnerable high-level wizards, monks that kinda suck at everything), but it’s actively supported and has its own free rules online as well (, plus is supported by awesome character-building/GMing tools like PCGen, Hero Lab, and Combat Manager. I play it weekly and have for over a year now and really enjoy it, but it’s a LOT more work than any of the systems listed above, so it is very much for a specific sort of player.

Sorry for the novel, but I love tabletop gaming!

Lay ground rules about cell phones up front.

…I get in trouble for fiddling with my iPhone and posting on QT3 instead of playing my character.

No, but there are some amazing Actual Play recordings of it on the One Shot podcast here. They’ve also done some other fun-sounding free light games like Lasers and Feelings (Star Trek-ish space opera), All Out of Bubblegum (by the Everyone is John people; you test your Bubblegum stat to do either normal things or kick some ass. The lower your Bubblegum gets, the harder it is to do normal stuff and the easier it is to kick some ass.), Police Cops, etc.

Oh, and John Harper has done a bunch of neat free RPGs like Lady Blackbird, the aforementioned Lasers and Feelings, Ghost/echo, Ghost Lines, The Mustang, and Danger Patrol. Some of them are so light that they might require more experience as a GM to really be able to spin out into a full play experience, though. Like Ghost/echo. His site’s here:

Oh man, Lasers & Feelings is delightful as a quick intro to tabletop games. The mechanics are probably a little too simplistic and “flat” to carry a long-term campaign well, but it’s a great intro to the idea, at the very least. There’s a fantasy hack of it, too, called Scrolls & Swords: