Become A Better Gamemaster

“The most important thing to remember when you actually get the scenario off the ground is this: whatever happens will always be different from what you expect.” — Atomic Robo: The Roleplaying Game

Gamemastering Concepts

Skilled GMs get that way because they’re always looking for ways to become a better gamemaster. Here are a few high-level skills I’ve observed in the best GMs:

Know Why You’re Playing

This sounds ridiculous. We’re all playing to have fun. But there’s more to it than that. Is roleplaying a relaxing bit of fun away from the pressures of jobs, family, and school? Is it a chance for everyone at the table to solve puzzles and come up with clever solutions? Is being in character really important for the people in your group? What about immersion in the game world? Know why your players are at the table, and don’t be afraid to be explicit in asking them. Check out the Improve Your Game page for tips on how to define player preferences.

Find the Right Game

Many gaming groups bash their heads against the games they’re playing. Not because they’re playing “bad” games, but because not every game is a good fit for every group. The Improve Your Game page provides some guidance to help GMs and players select games, and the Find Games to Play page lists over 50 games. One thing to keep in mind is that frequently reviews based on merely a read of the core rules will misunderstand or fail to address important aspects of a game that can only be discovered through play. Actual play reviews, particularly those that state the biases of the players conducting the review, are usually far more valuable.

Challenge Your Players

Players will complain if you overpower them and don’t give their characters a chance to survive. That’s to be expected, and if you’re too tough on them, they’re not going to have any fun. But unearned rewards aren’t nearly as satisfying as those that are hard won. There’s a vast middle ground between butchering characters and giving them a free ride to fame and glory. That said, they should never get comfortable. Characters should have moments to rejoice in their victories, but like superheroes and secret agents, they should constantly be challenged, presented with obstacles that keep them on their toes and force them to think. Like kids in class, players who aren’t challenged will become distracted at the table. More importantly, they won’t enjoy the game. Keep them engaged.

A skilled gamemaster can keep the attention of even a large group. Image credit: DSC_0237 by Roger Murmann, CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

Make Memorable Nouns

When player characters encounter a new person, place, or thing, make it memorable. There are many approaches to building out and describing non-player characters, monsters, locales, and artifacts, but whatever method you choose, always remember that players experience the things in your world through your descriptions. The stats and backstory and motivations are there to help you, but your words will bring life to the world. Even just a small sprinkling of adjectives can bring those nouns to life. The stomping bartender, the dinged but well-oiled armor, the fragrant night flowers, the nauseating sight of a murder of crows competing to devour the remains of a man slaughtered on the battlefield – these little details are like firewood for your players’ imaginations and will help keep them engaged in your world.

Help Players Define Their Characters

Whether they’re seeking to really inhabit a role the way a method actor might, or working to create the optimum character for a particular role in the party, every player wants their character to be memorable. Some players are good at that, either instinctually or through experience. Others require more of an assist. But all players can benefit from a GM who provides opportunities for character definition. One of the easiest approaches is to give players small decisions along the way that help flesh out their characters. Does the paladin move the villager out of the way first, or confront the gnoll immediately? When the saloon keeper tells the gunslinger he can only keep one of his three pistols on him, which does he choose? As the building collapses, does the thief grab the golden goblet, or the ancient scroll?

Build Conflicts, Not Plots

There are few aspects of gamamestering that create more heartburn than carefully-crafted plots that are wrecked by players. Of course, players are just being players, reacting to situations presented to them and coming up with their own ideas about what their characters should do. If you’re too attached to a pre-determined plot, you may (consciously or otherwise) push players to adhere to that plot. Instead, try preparing conflicts that can be assembled in more than one order, depending on how characters approach them. This gives you more flexibility and reinforces to players that their decisions matter.

Edit Aggressively

Action movies don’t spend much time showing us the hero’s plane ride from Buenos Aires to Berlin. Instead, they keep the story moving, spending time on the most dramatic moments. This doesn’t mean that player characters shouldn’t converse with townsfolk at the inn, or that every moment has to be driving toward a tense finale. But when the pace slows, don’t be afraid to give the story a nudge. If the players are rehashing their arcology break-in plan for the fifth time, have their fixer send them an emergency message letting them know the situation has changed and they need to move immediately. If the player characters are combing a side room in the dungeon, convinced that there’s a secret door, compress time and declare that they’ve found nothing after hours of intensive searching. The point is to keep putting players into situations that move the story forward.

Learn from the Masters

  • Focal Point: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Running Extraordinary Sessions – When you’re at the table running a game, you’re really doing three things at once — entertaining, telling a story, and facilitating the action. This book delves into how you can become better at all three.
  • The Lazy Dungeon Master – While aimed at D&D/d20 dungeon masters, this book book presents a framework applicable to a wide variety of games. It delivers an array of clever, practical tools to implement this approach. Don’t let the title fool you, this isn’t a primer on being a lazy game master, it’s about being an efficient one.
  • Never Unprepared: The Complete Gamemaster’s Guide to Session Prep – Even an old dog can learn new tricks, and this book is chock full of them. Covering the five phases of prep, from brainstorming to review, this is a thorough examination that will help you come up with your own efficient approach to session prep.
The key is to keep your players engaged. Image: PICT1233, by Dan Catchpole — CC-by-2.0 license
  • Odyssey: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Campaign Management – Focusing squarely on the planning and management of long-term campaigns, this book was written for beginners and veterans alike. It is thoughtfully written, thorough, and filled with helpful insights.
  • Play Unsafe – Graham Whalmsley takes inspiration for improv theater and applies it to tabletop RPGs. The result is a refreshing reinforcement of why we play games in the first place, with high-level techniques for sustaining a focus on enjoying your time at the table.
  • Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering – This is a deservedly famous book in gaming circles, particularly for its discussions of player types and finding creativity as a gamemaster. Produced by one of the most experienced game designers in the business, it incorporates both high-level analysis and hands-on techniques, and is aimed at experienced gamers.
  • Unframed: The Art of Improvisation for Gamemasters – This book takes the form of a series of short essays by prominent game designers and gamemasters. Some of the advice overlaps, and what you get out of the book will depend on your experience. New gamemasters in particular will benefit from this one.