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How to Be a DM or GM Part 1: Choosing Your Game and Supplies


Hello! If you're reading this, you're most likely interested in becoming a GM (Game Master) or DM (Dungeon Master) of your very own roleplaying game. Perhaps you've been a player in a game and now you wish to take control, or maybe you're simply interested in becoming an interactive storyteller. Whatever your reason, this is the article for you!

I will introduce you to the basics of becoming a DM or GM, including picking a system and buying supplies, both necessary and supplemental. In later articles, I will introduce ways of finding players for your roleplaying game, as well as tips for designing campaigns and sessions for your players. So please, read on, enjoy, and I hope this article is of great use to you!

Types of Systems

The first step in becoming a DM or GM is choosing your system. This isn't as easy as it sounds when you're starting off with no prior knowledge of RPGs, however, when you've had previous experience, this is delightfully simple. Choosing a system is a major decision because it helps govern play, as well as how you have to write your story. When using systems like G.U.R.P.S. or Cortex, it's a bit easier to create your own custom world and rules, such as spells, races, and history, while games like Dungeons and Dragons have entire novels worth of backstory. Every system is unique, and I definitely can't list them all, but here's a small sample of systems to look into: Dungeons and Dragons, Cortex, G.U.R.P.S, World of Darkness, and Pathfinder.

I'll cover a few of my favorite systems in-depth, to give you a better understanding of the pros and cons of each system, which will hopefully give you the insight to judge other systems.

The Red Box

So many adventures in such a little box...

So many adventures in such a little box...

Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons (or D&D) is what started it all when it comes to mainstream roleplaying. It has made itself known in the media, movies, video games, and is the most well known roleplaying game out there. This is where most roleplayers start and it's where many choose to stay, preferring to stick with a system they know.

Dungeons and Dragons broken down:

D&D is a tried and true RPG, built with plenty of great minds, a large amount of funding, and plenty of history behind it. You really can't go wrong when picking up D&D as your chosen RPG to start DMing with. That being said, it might be a little too traditional for some, as it isn't anything new to them, and one of the best ways to catch a roleplayer's attention can be a new system.


  • Complete system, covering almost anything you can think up
  • Large variety of races and classes
  • Huge amount of backstory and pre-made campaigns
  • Sets the standard for RPGs
  • Uses the well-known d20 die quite extensively
  • Huge community of players
  • Each version offers something different, leaving something for everyone


  • Is the most well-known RPG on the market, and therefore won't garner much interest
  • The large backstory to things such as Gods and races may be well received, but might hinder customization
  • Each version offers something different, meaning re-learning a great deal of the system with each new version


In today's economy, one cannot disregard price when it comes to anything, even things as fun and immersing as a good roleplaying game. That being said, Dungeons and Dragons can either be one of the cheapest or one of the most expensive games on the market, with older, harder to find books costing an arm and a leg (not literally, of course...most of the time.) The easiest way to start with D&D is to buy the ever-popular "Red Box." The Red Box contains everything you need to get started except the players. In it are the basic rules for play (both for the Dungeon Master and the players), a single set of six dice (as opposed to the more common 7 dice sets available from Chessex), tokens, a battle map, character sheets, and more. It is reasonably cheap, ranging from $13.00 to $19.99 depending upon your area. However, the Red Box is only the basic game, not containing many of the elements of the full game. To get started with a full Dungeons and Dragons game, you're looking at minimally buying the Dungeon Master's Kit to the version you're wishing to play. With 4.0, the set costs about $27.00 on, but does not include dice. However, you can usually find the books rather cheap on places such as eBay, yard sales, Craigslist, or your local comic shop.

Cortex Corebook

With this, you can do anything.

With this, you can do anything.

Cortex: Role Playing Game System

Cortex is my personal favorite roleplaying system, as it is easily bent to do whatever you need it to do. It began as a roleplaying system used for the licensed RPG Serenity, as well as Battlestar Galactica. Eventually it was used for other licensed RPGs such as the WB's Supernatural. With a list such as that, it had to be flexible, and that is the one word that describe Cortex to a T.

Cortex broken down:

It is a generally simple system, with easy-to-learn mechanics, both for the GM and the players. The corebook itself doesn't cover much in the way of story or races, due to it being a generic toolbox of rules for you to apply, but does offer all the ideas you might need to get started. The licensed books make great supplementary manuals, even if you're not fans of the particular series they belong to. Unfortunately, it is a little-known system, and thus some players may be reluctant to give it a shot, although every player I have had in the system has begged for more.

Players of games such as Fallout will find the character creation familiar and welcoming, while any GM that loves creating items and spells will love the system's ability to be molded into whatever is needed.

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Another aspect to Cortex that is rather unique is the use of plot-points, or PP. Plot-points, which are awarded for playing up negative character traits, or playing their character particularly well, let the player change the scenery a bit, giving them a hand in the overall environment.


  • Complete flexibility for player and Game Master created content
  • Easy-to-learn game mechanics
  • Easy-to-read character sheets
  • Uses all dice other than the d20, with a focus on the d12
  • Incredibly active online community
  • Cheaply priced for what you get
  • Similar to most roleplaying video games
  • Comes with a free downloadable .pdf copy with purchase (great if you have a laptop, Kindle, or Nook)
  • Unique Plot-point system


  • Corebook isn't as large as it could be
  • Supplementary books are usually from a licensed series
  • Usually requires each player to have at least two sets of dice
  • Plot-point system requires a bit of metagaming


Cortex is generally decently priced, running between $20-30.00 depending upon where you find it. Many online RPG sites carry .pdf copies, while if you buy a solid copy you get a code that is redeemable for a .pdf, which is a great value. The licensed books can be used in place of the core manual, though they don't offer as much customization, and they aren't even needed for normal play. You will find, however, that dice might be a little pricier than with D&D, as it is nice to have multiple sets.

Welcome True Believers assemble! assemble!

Marvel: Heroic Roleplaying

Marvel: Heroic Roleplaying is a system I've just recently started playing due to it being so new. It's a licensed release from Margaret Weis Productions, the same producers of Cortex. In fact, M:HR runs off the new Cortex+ system. It has several supplementary books already lined up, and is perfect for any comic-reader-turned-gamer.

Marvel: Heroic Roleplaying broken down:

M:HR is all about the storytelling and action. With it running off the Cortex+ system, it is as simple as you can get without it being built for children. Gameplay is very action-packed, with the players' ability to narrate increasing their character's abilities. Unfortunately, it isn't much of a dungeon crawler, so roleplayers searching for an intense RPG experience focusing on loot and monster slaying may be very disappointed. Players will also find miniatures almost pointless within the system, due to the extreme nature of the characters and their abilities. It is, however, easy to pick up and absolutely perfect if players want to switch characters, as the Basic Game manual has plenty of Marvel's finest heroes ready to use.

The system has one extremely unique aspect: The Doom Pool. With the Doom Pool, players' bad rolls will later harm them, essentially turning the GM (or Watcher, in M:HR) into another, more powerful player.


  • Easy to pick up and start playing
  • Rules completely covered in the Basic Game manual
  • Plenty of heroes ready to use
  • Cheaply priced to start, with the majority of the books being cheaper than most RPG books
  • Fast-paced, with there always being a moment of action
  • Greater scale, as characters confront world-sized events, instead of simply trekking dungeons
  • The ability to design your own hero


  • Gameplay may become routine and boring after awhile
  • Sometimes a little too simple
  • Limited character creation
  • Campaigns are a bit harder to create, due to the scale
  • Requires a decent bit of ad-libbing
  • Requires an immense amount of dice to play, with most players needing at least three sets


The first manual, Marvel: Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game is incredibly cheap, being priced only about $14.00. The second book, Marvel: Heroic Roleplaying Civil War Event Essentials, is a bit pricier at about $24.00, but my advice is to pickup the Marvel: Heroic Roleplaying Civil War Book Premium. It costs about $29.00, but it comes with both the first manual (Basic Game) and the Civil War Event. The dice will be a bit pricier, due to needing so many sets.



As a DM or GM you'll always want to make your campaigns better. Whether that means the use of miniature figures, a new set of dungeon tiles, or perhaps even music, it usually costs money. Here are some ideas of things you may or may not want to invest in. I will say though, dice are required.

  • Dice. Dice vary in price and brand, but most roleplayers use one brand: Chessex. Chessex offers the traditional 7-die package for about $6.50. That'll give you seven dice of a matching set. (If you're wondering, the dice in that are a d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d100, and d20.) Now, as you'll be using a lot more dice as a DM or GM, I'd suggest getting a Pound Of Dice from Chessex. It is literally a pound of random dice with at least one matching set guaranteed. The price varies between $19.99 to $24.00 depending upon where you buy them.
  • Mats. Chessex offers a reusable, washable mat perfect for drawing up dungeons for miniature use. The price is usually about $14.99, though I have seen it run for $29.99 before. It is an absolute must if you use miniatures. Also, on that note...
  • Miniatures. Mini-figures can cost you an arm and a leg if you're not careful. I've seen the price go as high as $12.00 a figure, and they can go for much more. My best advice is either learn to make your own, or re-purpose figures from games like Warhammer 40K, Mageknight, or Hero Clix.

There are many more accessories, but I certainly can't list them all. If you have any questions, feel free to either comment!

Happy rolling!


Seme on February 23, 2015:

I remember Gygax's name on the onarigil D&D books I pored over as a kid. I came across him again several years later when he started his On a Soapbox column in Dragon Magazine which for some reason my school library subscribed to.While it's true that his work spawned roleplaying games in the modern sense, I do feel he was later surpassed by the subsequent writers and designers. So, while Gygax was a clear pioneer in RPG's, his biggest legacy will be the countless modern gamers his work inspired.

Arturo Origel on February 05, 2014:

For "beginners" is usually better choice the light-rules systems like BRP, Savage worlds, fate, etc. Others gamers like better the crunchy systems like GURPS, HERO, JAGS (this is free)...personally I was a GURPShead but since I've read EABA 2.0 I turn into an EABA GM and never look back again, almost all the system is pure genius (including the scalating turn-mods, even when I was skeptical at first). Cheers.

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