Gamemasters (sometimes known as Dungeon Masters, Referees and similar such titles) have arguably the toughest job. Gamemasters must learn the bulk of the rules, make judgments where application of the rules may not be clear and are essentially responsible for making the session a fun one for all.
From my many years of experience and more than anything my many mistakes, I present my top tips for Gamemasters.
1. Be a Player Character
Well I didn’t get to do this step as I was the one in my group of friends that bought my first RPG. That said, you’ll have an advantage over me if you have the opportunity to be a PC first before playing as a GM.
It makes sense because being a PC helps get you familiarized with the game you’re playing without being responsible for the entire session. It will also help you understand the PC’s perspective when you start to run games as a GM.
2. Be Prepared
Now you’ve taken the plunge and have put a night (or day) on the calendar to run your first session for you friends. Don’t panic, just make sure you prepare for your gaming session.
Being prepared means learning the rules for the game as thoroughly as you can. Now it’s okay if you don’t memorize absolutely every rule, but you’ll want to know the ones that handle 90% of game situations like the back of your hand. Combat rules are most common, so doing a little solo “practice” scenario on your own will help.
If you’re running a published module, read it over and study it. If you’re running an adventure you made up, make sure to write out an outline with details you’ll need help to remember. Being familiar with the adventure will help you to run it smoothly and keep the action going.
You’ll also want to make sure your gaming materials are handy. If you have a lot of items such as miniatures, game mats, books and the like, you may even want to make a list of items you’ll need for the game. This is especially true if you’re travelling.
Another tip included in preparation would be to have a few “stock encounters” on hand. Stock encounters are kind of universal encounters that can sort of be plugged into gaps within an adventure to flesh them out. Examples of such encounters might a group of ornery bar patrons, an ambush by highway robbers, colorful NPC profiles of people the characters may meet by random or the like. Stock encounters are handy for GMs to plug into adventures when the Characters decided to go somewhere or do something unexpected. For example, you expect the PCs to head directly to the ruins to investigate, but they instead want to visit the local watering hole for which you don’t have anything specifically written up. Plugging in a colorful NPC or group of ornery bar patrons will help flesh out the game session.
3. Give Each Player Plenty of Limelight
Long drawn out situations with nothing for a character can be boring. Most gaming scenarios involve the entire party, so this shouldn’t be a situation that will come up often. If however the scene needs to be drawn away from a particular character, try not to keep them out of the limelight too long.
If for example two of the characters go to bargain with the weapons dealer while the rest of the party decide to gather information at the local watering hole, make sure your attention between the two groups is balanced. If one scene involving one part of the party seems to be prolonged, you can “pause” their scene and bring focus back on the other players.
Even during combat scenes, players can inadvertantly soak up lots of playing time by taking too long to deliberate their character’s actions. Remember, they don’t have an unlimited amount of time to decide their actions and you can as the GM enforce a time limit for players who take too long. “Okay, let’s come back to you after you decide what your character is doing. Let’s see what Jim is doing now…” is a perfectly fine example as how to move the limelight back to players who need it.
Another way to make sure each player gets plenty of limelight is to create situations that need team work. This especially makes sense involving situations needing completely different types of skills to accompish a task. For example, the stronger characters need to physically hold a door shut and prevent intruders from getting in while the more tech savvy characters try and to activate the power locks.
4. Get Help From the Players
Although it’s true that the GM runs the game and is responsible for creating a satisfying scenario for all the players, it doesn’t mean the GM has to do it alone. It’s okay to get help from the other players.
A situation in the game may arise that involves something outside the expertise of the GM. It’s okay for the GM to ask the players what they think that may have better expertise involving a given situation. The GM may not know off the top of his or her head how much water is needed per person per day in an arid environment. It’s okay to poll the players and come to a reasonable conclusion. The caveat is to remember that the players input may be biased!
Sometimes the GM will want to come up with a creative complication that happens from a critical fail other than simply having the gun jam or perhaps something more interesting than doubling damage from a critical hit. Creativity can be finite, so it’s okay to poll players for suggestions as to what happens. “You rolled a ‘1’– what horrible thing happens to Jim?” is an okay way to do that.
This also applies outside the game. Get help from the players in terms of arranging food and snacks.
5. You’re Not “God”
One of the most common paradigms that people use in RPGs is that the Gamemaster is “God”. This simply isn’t true for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the GM has absolutely no control whatsoever over the other players and their characters. This may seem like more a technicality, but I think this is a very important point to the spirit of the game. It’s my opinion that one gets the most enjoyment out of an RPG by embracing the fact that the players will do things completely outside the gamemaster’s control. Conversely when I was a beginner at GMing RPG, I was a complete control freak and tried control every aspect of the game waving my might GM “god hammer”. This quickly drained most fun out of the game. After learning the error of my ways, I completely embrace the chaos that is a group of other human beings playing RPGs with me and have had way more fun since.
Secondly, a God can do whatever they want and whenever they want. This makes them essentially a character in and of themselves within the game. A GM unlike a God is actually limited to making game decisions that follow a reasonable amount of logic within the game. If for example a person in a space sci-fi setting gets blown out of an airlock into the empty vacuum of space, that unfortunate person will die in under a minute without intervention and there’s nothing the GM can do about it (assuming they’re a good GM). A God of course would be able to provide divine intervention and save the person, but the GM cannot without “breaking” the game so to speak. This of course doesn’t mean the GM can’t create a reasonable means that the unlucky person can be rescued, but it would still have to follow a reasonable course of logic that a God would not be bound to.
6. Remember the #1 Rule (FUN)
Why so serious? Remember, the key word in the term Roleplaying Game is of course Game! If people aren’t having fun, then they won’t want to play and you won’t have a game.
Most people have fun so long as you provide a challenge with a fair chance at success. This means striking a balance between letting the players have whatever they want and being mercilessly punitive when player characters fail.
This also means that players will bring a different mood to the game than you had intended. You’ve constructed an adventure with a story of heavy drama and tragedy, but your players have turned it into a comedy. Roll with it. Your well crafted NPC Lindsay Blake has a really poignant life story of overcoming tragedy and becoming a character of strength whom you hope will be the love interest of one of the PCs. The party of PCs have instead decided to abandon her to face certain doom while they escape and later loot her stuff not remembering her name and referring to her as “meat shield”. Don’t be upset, just go with it. Players will be players.
But failure is important. Failure and its consequences represent a boundary and players like children thrive on boundaries. Also, a real and palpable sense of the possibility and consequences of failure make victory all the more sweeter.
I’ve also had many playing sessions that have degenerated into work gossip and watching random funny videos on YouTube that have nothing to do with the game. Hey, the point of getting together is having fun and there’s no point in being a task master and trying to get people back into the game if you’re all having fun putting your attention elsewhere.
On the other hand, this does not mean you have to be a doormat either giving the player characters whatever they want. RPGs are a group experience and you deserve to have fun too. Sometimes individual players just won’t fit with the rest of the group. You’ll want to respectfully communicate with them as to how you’d like them to change. If they still don’t fit, you’ll most likely have to cut them from the group. You may find in extreme situations that you’re the odd person out and you don’t fit with the rest. In these situations you’ll want to respectfully communicate that you are no longer having fun running games for your group. If nothing changes, then you simply have to find a new group.
So what do you think of these tips? As always, feel free to comment or write me at firstname.lastname@example.org