Become A Game Master
They’re different words for the same thing: GM, Dungeon Master, DM, Keeper, 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.
“…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
Prep for Your First Session
Take It Easy
Use a game you’ve played before. If you’re totally new to RPGs, use a beginner-friendly game. This is important. Once you have some game mastering under your belt you’ll be able to run even the most complex game systems, but when you’re starting out you’ll have enough on your plate. You’ll want a game that supports you and your players and is relatively straightforward.
Know the Game
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.
If you have to look something up, that’s not a big deal. Even experienced GMs look up the rules frequently. But you do need to have a solid understanding of the game’s core mechanics. You should be able to help players make characters, know how task resolution (making rolls when characters want to do something difficult) works, and other basics.
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 run through some basic actions. If you’ll be playing a traditional fantasy or sci fi game, that might include 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
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
Most beginner-friendly games come with a prepared adventure (sometimes called a ”module“). 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 adjust off of as events unfold.
Read the adventure with the goal of understanding what threats and rewards it presents and how the player characters (PCs) can get hooked into it. Keep in mind no published adventure can tell you everything you need to run the adventure, because nobody can anticipate everything that might happen once players get into the game. That’s OK. If there’s something about it you don’t understand or think should be different, fill in the gaps yourself.
Use Pre-generated Characters
Many RPGs include pre-generated characters. Asking the players to use them for your first GMing run provides two benefits: You can study the character sheets before the first session to get a good sense of how much you can throw at the players without overwhelming them, and because the players won’t have any effort invested in the characters, it will take some of the pressure off you as GM.
One approach is to tell the players that your first few sessions as game master are a trial run, and that they should expect to create new characters once you’re feeling comfortable running the game. You could also check in with the players after a few sessions and ask if they want to continue with the characters they have or start over with new ones.
Run the Session
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.
As a gamemaster you are telling everyone at the table what is happening. You describe the situation, tell them what their characters see and hear, and assume the role of anyone they might encounter. The players then react to the situation, and you describe what happens next. Whenever a roll is required, you interpret the results and continue the back and forth of situation/reaction from there.
As the story unfolds, be sure to take a look around the table. Tabletop roleplaying is a conversation, and just as you would do if hosting a party, you want to be sure everyone can get in on the conversation.
Your first session doesn’t need twists and turns. Your players will enjoy being in a new game with a new GM. They’ll be getting to know their characters and discovering the game world. As long as you keep the session moving along, put the players into interesting situations, and treat them fairly, they’ll enjoy it.
If you’re running a game for beginning players, check out the Teach Newcomers to Play section.
The Next Few Sessions
Edit the Action
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.
Come up with a note taking system that works for you. If you have to rely on memory to recall what happened during the session, invariably you’ll miss some important detail. Maybe you created an NPC on the fly, and need to remember her name for later. A brilliant flash of inspiration may hit you – an idea about who should be waiting for the PCs in the next town, for example. It doesn’t matter whether your notes are digital or pencil and paper, as long as you capture the thought.
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.
Over the Long Haul
Know Why You’re Playing
This sounds ridiculous I know. 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.
Create Situations, Not Stories
After you have the basics down and feel comfortable running the game, you’re ready to create your own adventures.
It’s tempting to create a detailed plot for your players to move through. Unfortunately this approach usually leads to disappointment. Players notoriously do unexpected things. If you think they’ll have their characters attack the tower, odds are they’ll try to bribe the Thieves’ Guild into sneaking them into the throne room instead. You’ll wind up either forcing them into a straightjacket, or feeling like you’ve wasted all of your prep time for nothing.
As a game master you are not an author or a screenwriter. Your job is not to create a story. Instead your mandate is to constantly create hooks that your players can grab into and run with. This cycle is what creates story.
You can come up with these hooks by remembering that the game world is never static, just waiting for the player characters to do something. Whether you’re using a published adventure or creating your own, jot down a few notes before the game. Remind yourself what the forces opposing the players want to accomplish, and whenever you need to improvise, come back to those notes.
Build Conflicts, Not Plots
There are few aspects of GMing that create more heartburn than players wrecking carefully-crafted plots. 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.
Keep It simple
You don’t have to come up with anything elaborate. Actually the more elaborate you make things, the higher the probability that your players will get confused. Remember that your players understand the game world through what you reveal to them; if you create something simple and only reveal it slowly, it will be dramatic and exciting for the players.
For example, you decide a disgruntled wizard wants to destroy the city that kicked him out years ago. He hires an army of bandits and goblins to attack the city. The player characters live in the city. They can get embroiled in the situation through a variety of means:
- They’re traveling outside the city and encounter a small advanced party of goblins. This tells them something out of the ordinary is going on. The goblins don’t know who hired them, but they know there’s a larger army coming in behind them. A captured goblin might reveal this information, or the PCs may find it by looking for more goblin bands in the forest. Further investigation leads them to the main body of the army.
- Villagers stream into the city telling tales of a band of attackers who came in at night and killed almost everyone. The PCs go to the village to investigate, and find signs that this wasn’t just a routine raid. They investigate further and come across more goblins and eventually the main body of the army.
- Smoke rising off on the horizon has everyone in the city concerned. The PCs either volunteer or are paid to go investigate. They come across the ruins of a village, the ruins still smoldering, and signs that it was goblins. They investigate further and come across more goblins and eventually the main body of the army.
Any one of these hooks works to get the players engaged in the action. Even if they had to fight goblins along the way, when they get to the main body of the wizard’s army, they still don’t know why it is on the march, what it is going to do next, or who is leading it. Depending on PC actions, you can use non player characters (NPCs) such as captured goblins, bandit defectors, villagers, or random travelers to reveal as much or as little information as you like as events unfold.
You don’t have to have it all plotted out ahead of time. You just need to know why these events are unfolding and who is behind them. This makes it relatively easy to improvise along the way.
This simple approach also provides the advantage of simple bookkeeping. As a game master, the fewer threads to keep track of, the easier your job. Again, remember that as the GM you have all of the information. Whether fighting, exploring, or investigating, one of the most satisfying parts of the game for players is learning more about what’s truly going on, because that information gives them the power to accomplish their goals.
Follow Their Lead
This is one of the most effective techniques in any GM’s bag of tricks. Periodically ask the players what their characters think is going on. Whether you’re running a mystery, a dungeon delve, or a mission to infiltrate an Imperial prison planet, the players only see a small slice of the big picture. They will form their own ideas about that big picture, based on what has happened to their characters thus far, and on the clues you give them (purposefully or not).
Sometimes they’ll come up with ideas that are even better than what you’ve already defined. For example, you determined up front that the wizard raised an army to destroy the city because he had been kicked out years ago. But after the players encounter the first goblin scouts, they come up with the theory that the goblins have a means of controlling the wizard. They’ve long desired the city’s riches, and are using his magical powers to aid their plans. As long as this doesn’t conflict with anything you’ve already presented to the players, you can take this idea as-is, or modify it and merge it in with your existing plans.
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?
Always Be Learning
Gamemastering is a craft. Anyone can do it, but to do it well and enjoy it, you have to put in the effort. Play in another GM’s campaign. Check out GM-focused blogs. Watch actual play videos. Nobody, not even GMs who have been at it since the earliest days of the hobby, ever stops learning. And that’s part of what makes game mastering so enjoyable. Here are a few resources to help you on your game mastering journey:
Blogs for Game Masters
- Gnome Stew – Dedicated to the art of game mastering, this outstanding blog offers advice and resources suitable for any GM.
- Sly Flourish: Building the Better Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master – Though aimed at D&D dungeon masters, Mike Shea’s game mastering tips are invaluable regardless of the game you’re running.
- The Alexandrian – Actor, writer, and gamer Justin Alexander provides lots of goodies for game masters, and highlights the connections between roleplaying and other media.
- Triple Crit — A Blog for Writers, Roleplayers, and Gamemasters – Katrina Ostrander provides tips for players and gamemasters alike, and connects the dots between writing and roleplaying.
- 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.
- 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 game masters in particular will benefit from this one.