Become A Game Master

They’re different words for the same thing: GM, Dungeon Master, DM, Referee, MC, Director, Game Master. Whatever name you use, this person sets the stage and manages the flow of the game. While it may seem daunting, you can become a game master.

It’s not easy at first, but it’s also tremendously rewarding. Talk to any long-time game master and they’ll tell you when they first started running games they didn’t know what they were doing – and they still had a blast. Just remember that the point is for everyone at the table to have fun, and you’ll do fine.

If don’t already have a game in mind, those highlighted on the Your First Game page do a great job of guiding first-time game masters.

“…it’s the GM’s job to pull together the actions, reactions, and desires of all the people sitting around the table, mesh them with the setting and background created before the session began, and turn it all into a cohesive story – on the fly.” — Numenera Core Corebook

Know the Game

It’s important for players to understand the game’s setting and its mechanics. It’s even more important for you as the GM. To become a game master you don’t need to have all the answers in your head, but you do need to understand the major elements of the game world and the core mechanics. Know how character capabilities are defined, how challenges and conflicts are resolved, and what tools the game provides you as a game master.

Even if you’ve played the game already, a warm-up can be quite helpful. It will help you understand how the game works in play, and will help feel more relaxed when you run the game. Take a pre-generated player character from the rulebook, and have the character do the following:

  • Attempt to sneak past a guard
  • Try to bargain with a non-player character (NPC)
  • Uncover a clue
  • Fight an opponent
  • Obtain healing from another character

Be sure to make the die rolls as if you were a player. You’ll probably have to look a few things up in the rulebook as you run through this warm-up. That’s fine – the more familiar you are with the organization of the rules, the better.

Know the Adventure

symbaroum-river-goddess
Published adventures, like this one for the Swedish fantasy game Symbaroum, can be used as-is, or mined for ideas.

Most beginner-friendly games come with a prepared adventure. If the game you’re running doesn’t include one, a Google search will likely find you some professional or fan-produced adventures. The trick to running prepared adventures is to remember that they’re just guidelines, a baseline for you to riff off of as events unfold. Read the adventure with the goal of understanding what threats and rewards it presents and how the player characters can get hooked into it.

Run the Session

There's nothing like experience to make you a better gamemaster.
Veteran Star Wars GM Khairul Hisham makes the magic happen.

Sometimes first-time game masters get stressed out because they want to run a perfect session. That’s understandable, but know that there is no such thing as a perfect session. But roleplaying is an extremely forgiving pastime. It’s really just people finding adventure in a shared imaginative space. If as a GM you forget the name of the captain of the guard, or have to look up the rules for poison, nobody will remember that. They’ll remember that the captain of the guard wanted a bribe, and that the poisoned arrow almost killed one of the characters.

As the GM, you’ll be bringing the rules, dice, the adventure, and whatever notes you’ve made in preparation for the session. Be sure everyone else has a pencil, some paper for notes, and their character sheet, at a minimum. If players have their own copies of the rules, that’s a big plus, because they’ll be able to look up rules on their own. The more they know about the rules, the better. Players usually want to bring their own dice as well; it’s part of the fun of playing at the table together.

If you’re running a game for beginning players, check out the Teach Newcomers to Play section.

Evaluate

You will become a game master in your own fashion; every GM has their own style. Some are exceptional at making the players feel immersed in the setting, while others set up clever traps, present intriguing non-player characters, or draw the player characters into complex challenges. After your first two or three sessions, ask the players what they are enjoying most about the game. That will give you an idea of what you’re doing well. The next session, you can work on improving other aspects of your game mastering. Check out the Become a Better GM page for help with that.