The Game Master is in many ways the very core of any tabletop RPG. The GM isn’t just the brain that applies the rules. A GM is the magic spark that makes tabletop RPG gaming so compelling. A great GM can make even the most simple scenario into a memorable event. They can take the weaknesses and unpredictability of their players and bend it to the betterment of the game as a whole. Good GMs are not only skilled game designers – they are arbiters, storytellers, and custodians of the game.
Being a GM is a unique experience, since you aren’t a player. Your role is to provide a game for your players. The best GMs never have any trouble filling seats and are a rare breed. If you are thinking about taking on the mantle of game master or just want to sharpen your abilities, then you’ve come to the right place. I’ve scoured the net for nuggets of wisdom that will help you get better at the art of shepherding a hapless party through the trials and tribulations you yourself have made for them. Hey, it’s good to be king.
Understand Your Job
Being the GM isn’t about you; it’s a service you provide to the players. Obviously it’s important that you enjoy being a GM, but your main source of pleasure should be how much your players are enjoying the game. While acting as the game master gives you absolute authority over what happens in the game, you can’t be a GM if no one wants to play your games. So know your players and give them something that will keep them coming back.
Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should
A GM is the absolute authority in a game. They can change the rules, create sadistic or impossible obstacles, turn everyone into penguins. Really, there is no limit. However, expanding on my first point, you probably shouldn’t do these things just because you can.
I’m not saying you should be a benevolent god, but you should know WHY you are doing a particular thing. There has to be some sort of endgame whenever you make a decision. Don’t be a jerk just for your own sadistic reasons.
The job of a GM involves more paperwork than most actual desk jobs. So it’s incredibly important that you keep records of everything you need and organize it properly. Your players should make sure that you always have the latest copies of their character sheets.
Technology can really help here. Digital tools like Dropbox and tabletop apps are an easy way to keep everything straight. Online services like Roll20 are also invaluable, especially if you want to run your game over long periods of time or remote distances.
Stick to Your Own Rules
As a GM you are free to tweak the rules of the tabletop game in question. It’s common for each group to have unique house rules under the GM, especially if the way a rule should be interpreted can go in two different directions. The GM is the arbiter here and that’s the final rule. However, if you made a specific interpretation, don’t flake out and go the other way the next time. It’s one thing to create your own rules; it’s another to be arbitrary about it. This is one of the reasons you should make a note the first time an issue comes up – so that you can refer back to how it was resolved the first time. If you don’t, your players will be happy to remind you.
You Are the Example to Everyone
Every tabletop session has its own character. Not all games are equally serious and that’s fine. Just don’t expect the standard of play to come from your players. They will take what’s acceptable or not from your behavior. Don’t act like a goofball yourself and then come down on your players because they’re not in character the way you’d like. Be the change you want to see, man.
Take Inspiration Wherever You Can
While you can get most of what you need from the various additional campaign books every tabletop RPG inevitably sprouts, you shouldn’t limit yourself to just the official material. Get inspiration from anywhere. Have you read any good fantasy books or watched a great adventure movie? Why not take elements from it and use it in your campaign? As long as it makes the game more fun you should consider using something. Nothing is ever truly original – at least not in its entirety. Mixing together ideas from other sources can, however, create something really special. So the key takeaway here is to be open minded about the inspiration for your stories.
Plan, Plan, and Plan
Most of what a GM does happens before the actual game session. The basics you probably already know, but be careful not to wing too much of your campaign. Anticipate as much as is reasonable and spend enough time planning things out so that the session will run smoothly. Most importantly, try to look for contradictions and play-breaking factors in your story.
Build a Solid World
If you want your players to get properly sucked into the story you are telling, they have to suspend their disbelief. Try to write NPCs that are memorable yet realistic for their context. Give them names that will stick in memory and lines that will grab attention. From a humble barkeep to a haughty paladin, it needs to feel right.
The provided GM aids for your particular RPG will give you most of what you need in order to build believable settings that feel like a tale from an actual place, but you can paint your vision with as much detail as you need to complete the illusion.
Have Flexible Levels of Challenge
When you design a campaign, don’t let your best-laid plans get in the way of a balanced game. If your players turn out not to be particularly skilled or they end up being better than you thought, be prepared to adjust on the fly how hard things are. Players need to feel that their achievements were hard won, but should never lose hope because they think the challenge is impossible.
Don’t Neglect Players
If you have a party of six players it stands to reason that some people are simply not going to have their moment of glory during the campaign. As the GM it’s a good idea to tailor the campaign in such a way that everyone has a chance to do something heroic in the story. Think of the Fellowship of the Ring from The Lord of the Rings. It was a huge party, but every character gets some time in the sun. You don’t want anyone feeling neglected at the end of the session. Since you know beforehand what the party composition will be, you can craft challenges and obstacles that certain characters are perfect to solve. You can’t, of course, guarantee that they’ll rise to the occasion, but give them a chance.
Time Management is Key
No matter how enthralling the world of the RPG is, real life will intrude at some point. Sessions have a time limit and the campaign itself has to progress at the correct pace. The GM is also the pacemaker of the game. If things are taking too long you can help players along to keep them engaged in the campaign. There are many ways you can streamline events in your campaign so that things don’t go stale. You can adjust the narrative to remove certain challenges that will end up taking too much time. You can nudge indecisive players along if they start to drag everyone down. As long as players don’t feel you are rushing things, it’s OK not to go through the motions “just because”.
Don’t Be Scared to Use New Tools
I’ve mentioned them here and there in this article, but there are a truckload of modern technology-driven tools that make the life of a Game Master so much easier. From apps that simulate any dice roll to complete online systems that house all the information for your campaign, there will be something to help take the pain out of being a GM.
If you try something and don’t like it, then dump it. Just don’t be so close-minded that you throw the possibility of a little modern help away completely. On the other side of the argument, you should avoid using things just for their own sake. Just because you think a tool is cool doesn’t mean it should have a place at the table.
Integrate the Unexpected
Let’s face it, players can be far too smart for their own good. And sometimes a GM just can’t see all the possibilities. In either case, sometimes a player comes up with a clever solution to a challenge that you never thought of. It might come across as cheap or silly, but if it’s allowed within the rules and it resolves the challenge, then don’t be a jerk about it. The player hasn’t messed up “your” carefully-crafted scenario. They have played a role in your narrative that pushes it in another direction. Reward your players for coming up with innovative ideas and integrate the new things you learn from them into future game designs.
Give Players Interesting Choices
Speaking about being precious when it comes to your story, try to avoid linearity. Yes, I know that some groups enjoy battle-heavy, linear dungeon crawls. For most of us, however, the most interesting part of an RPG is not fighting an endless stream of monsters. It’s the act of exploring the world and pushing or pulling the narrative. Nothing will deflate your players more than realizing that nothing they do in the game makes a difference to anything.
Give them a strong branching narrative so that their choices have meaning. Yes, you spent time crafting content that they will never see because they zigged instead of having zagged, but the the point is to give them a choice of where to go. In any case, you can always run the same campaign again with other players.
The best GMs have a flair for the theatrical. That doesn’t just come naturally to everyone, so practice telling your stories as part of your preparation before running a campaign. Record yourself and give your delivery a good listen. Be honest in your assessment of the storytelling. Practice makes perfect.
Set the Mood
Immersing players into your amazing campaign is about more than just saying the right words in the right way. You can also use decorations, lighting, music, and other peripheral things to create the right atmosphere. Serious GMs can dedicate a room for their sessions and then slowly turn it into the perfect atmosphere generator. After all, it can be pretty hard to get into it on your flow-pattern kitchen table surrounded by pots and pans.
Own Your Mistakes
Despite what many GMs would like to think, they aren’t perfect. Anyone can make a calculation error or misremember a rule. If it turns out that you’ve made some sort of boo-boo, then don’t try to shy away from it. Admit that you screwed up like an adult (in a cape) and figure out a way to make it right. If you are too far past the issue to backtrack, confer with your players on a fair way to make up for it. Otherwise you’ll just have to apologize and they’ll have to forgive.
The only way to get better at being a GM is to analyze how well you’re doing right now and what could be better. Your players are the best source of information when it comes to your performance as a GM. That’s why it’s a good idea to get detailed feedback from them. If they are your friends you can just have a chat about what happened during the sessions. If you act as a GM for various people who are not your friends, then you can actually just create some feedback forms. Hand them out or point people to an online version.
Read the feedback and decide if there is anything there you really need to look at. Not everything players say is something you need to worry about. Some of it might even be needlessly mean. None of that matters, however – just take what’s useful and leave the rest.
Be a Player Under a Good GM
There are many reasons to give up the GM mantle every now and then. For one thing, it means you can just relax for once and play instead of taking responsibility for every little detail.
Another great reason to take on the role of player every now and then is to learn from other GMs. Getting back into the mindset and viewpoint of a player will inspire you in many different ways. Experiencing what an excellent GM (or even a bad GM) feels like will help you raise your own game.
YouTube is an Amazing Place to Learn
One of the interesting side-effects of public online video hosts such as YouTube is the trend of recording tabletop sessions. From complete amateurs to professional game masters, you can find detailed recordings of their sessions on sites like YouTube. This is a great way to pick up the things that game masters come up with. From their storytelling style to the actual campaign designs, you can scrutinize their games play-by-play. It’s the same thing professional athletes do, except with more dragons and fewer leather balls being kicked around.
Master of Your Destiny
Being a GM is a labor of love. Players just have to show up with their character sheet and some dice. You have to put in hours of creative energy so they have the time of their life. When you think of all the skills a good game master has to, er, master, then we all should feel more respect for them. So thanks for taking on the role of GM, and may you keep honing the craft so that we players can have adventures that just keep getting better each time.