There is something about stepping out of your own skin for a few hours and developing the story of a completely different group of people. Watching numbers on your sheet go up and down, each pen stroke and scrubbing of the eraser adds to the growth and change of the person you’re pretending to be.
There are many different reasons why people play RPGs, and as we’ve seen in recent years, the hobby has been getting bigger and bigger and better. Every day, new people buy their first copy of an RPG book. Every day someone tries their hand at a demo table at a convention, or is simply invited along to partake by a group of their friends.
It’s social gaming. It’s driven by a want to develop and grow something that exists only in the collective imaginations of those playing with you.
It sounds like it can be pretty heady stuff. And indeed, mechanically, RPGs often have a lot of moving parts, and even when they don’t, there are a number of things that need to be kept in check to make sure the game continues to run smoothly and (as it would appear from the players side of the screen), seamlessly.
Since the RPG explosion of the last few years, there has been more and more pressure and grandeur placed on the title of “Game Master” (or “Dungeon Master”, “Storyteller”, “Game Mother”, “Adjudicator” depending on your game of choice).
From the outside looking in, it would appear that stepping into the role of Game Master is a call to arms that is only worthy of the most confidant, creative and charismatic creators on earth!
Indeed, Game Masters continue to be lauded- without them, the game wouldn’t exist, right? That’s a helluva lot of pressure to put on yourself.
I’ve been playing RPGs since I was 14 years old. So I’ve been doing this for almost half of my life at this point. While that statement is stressful enough in itself, I believe that I’ve got plenty of information, hacks and -most of all-, encouragement, to pass on to those of you who either want to GM, but haven’t, or who haven’t even entertained the idea because you’ve convinced yourself you won’t be able to.
Spoiler alert: The part of you that says you can’t do this is wrong. You absolutely can do it. And we’re here to help.
Firstly, let me pass on some of the best advice I ever got when it comes to being a Game Master. To put everything in perspective, consider this: It’s RPG night. All the players, maybe four to six of you, are sitting at the table, waiting to begin play- but oh no! The GM is sick, and cancelled at the last minute!
Huge bummer right?
But, the group of you are all players, you know the rules. You’re all there. You could easily do something without the need of the Game Master, even if all your characters just hang out at an inn and maybe start a drunken fist fight with each other. The game is about the characters and the mechanics that make that happen- so in the GM’s absence, you’re still able to have some fun.
Now, let’s turn that situation around.
The Game Master is waiting, and all the players cancel.
All you have is one person sitting alone at a table with a handful of dice.
In short- The Game Master isn’t as important as you think. There is nothing more humbling than remembering you’re there to help guide everyone else as they explore the story.
Once you realise that you’re a Game Helper, and not a Game Master, the whole role begins to feel far less daunting.
From there, the following tips should help get you in the right mindset, and they should work as anchors for you when you’re behind the screen.
An “anchor” should be a philosophy or theme that you can always bring yourself back to if you ever feel like the game, or the players, are getting away from you.
You’ll find they will develop for you over time, evolving into what many people today refer to as a “GM Style.”
But it’s important to remember that nothing is ever set in stone.
1. Plot your game, but be light on detail.
It’s obviously important to have a good sense of what you’re going for when you sit down to run a game. You’ll need to have an idea of the story you want to tell, how the characters get involved in that story, how they stay involved (ie: their motivation), and ultimately where you want the story to end up.
When I first started I’d write out my sessions like I was drafting a short story. The thing I never factored in what how the human condition interacts with stories- While you might think there is only one obvious way for the player characters to engage themselves, players will always find a way to go about it that you haven’t thought of.
In that sense, you don’t want to over prepare. You want to know where your plot is going, and you’ll want a rough idea of how to get there, but you’ll need those plot points to be mutable. You’ll need to let player choices dictate where and when those plot points are found.
2. Use the GM Screen.
Most games have a unique Game Master screen littered with quick reference tables and notes of varying usefulness. When you’re reading through the books for the game you’re wanting to run, be sure to take note of things you’ll need to remember or reference, and make sure they’re on the screen.
If they’re not, a sticky note or the like can go a long way to make you feel like an omniscient Rules God during the course of play. Not to mention you won’t run the risk of slowing momentum of play by flicking through your book to find the rule you “knew was around this section somewhere.”
3. Use the Player Character sheets.
You should make sure to have a copy of each of the player’s character sheets with you behind the screen.
The main reason for this is that the PC sheets are really a cheat sheet for you to run a good game. Has Rebacca put a lot of points into a Lore skill for her Goblin Rogue? That means she wants to explore Lore, and have her character’s knowledge rewarded- you’d better find a way to incorporate that into the game.
What about Craig? He’s taken a Talent for his FBI agent that means he has an old College buddy who knows an awful lot about ghosts- you don’t have ghosts in the story you’ve prepared, but maybe he contacts Craig with some valuable information- or indeed the opening plot hook to get the players prepared.
The other reason you’ll want to keep the PC character sheets handy is so you can ask players to roll for checks without telling them what they’re rolling for. After all, if you ask for a Listen check and the character fails their role- it kinda sucks that the players all know that something is up!
4. Identify the player’s wants and needs.
This one might feel a bit advanced, but once you start running your first game, you’ll begin to notice that it’s something you can’t help put feel.
People play RPG’s for a myriad of different reasons. And while it’s impossible to please everyone all the time, it is possible to please everyone some of the time.
This is another reason you’ll want their sheets handy. If Rachel shows she gets a real kick out of the opening combat scene where she got to use her bow, it might be worth adding some range combat into the later encounters if you don’t have them already.
Likewise, if Todd is always asking something like “can I make a Persuade roll?”, he’s probably craving some social intricacies and a chance to prove how daring and charming his character is.
Once you’ve played with the same group a few times, this idea of “wants and needs” will grow into something bigger. You’ll know what the group desires as a whole, whether is be deep, tactical combat scenes that take hours of satisfying decision making, longr sequences of actual roleplaying where the players find themselves in situations to engage with the world on a more narratively-driven level, or the combination of the two.
You may even identify that for what the players want, you’re playing the wrong game!
The world of RPG’s is extremely vast, and it’s incorrect to expect one game to be able to scratch everyone’s itches. There is no harm in branching out, and indeed, with every new game you play, you’ll find you bring something new to the fray when you inevitably return to your roots.
5. You’re here for fun- the dice are a tool.
This will be my most contentious point.
At the end of the day, regardless of whether you want a story-driven game with deep character development, or aggressive, deep combat scenes, you’re here to have fun.
The dice are a tool for that fun. They should never ever have the power to undo it.
I almost always make my rolls as the Game Master behind the screen. I encourage people to do this as well, at least when they’re starting out.
The idea of ‘fudging’ is a contentious point, but I believe that the players should trust you (and indeed, you should trust yourself), to make decisions about the dice that ultimately inform the drama and the fun of the game.
If it’s someone’s first time playing Dungeons & Dragons, and an Orc scores a critical hit that will kill them in the first encounter, ask yourself: Would that be fun for that player?
Indeed, if you know them, maybe they will think that’s fun!
But likely, it’s going to be a negative play experience. Particularly if that character was the party’s only healer, which in turn means that everyone else is likely to have a sad or stressful time as the game goes on.
Likewise, there are times when I’ve built up to a big encounter with a foul Xenomorph Alien, or wicked Cosmic Horror, only to have the beast miss all it’s attacks- it kills the drama. If the players are dealing with something to easily- especially if it’s a dramatic tipping point, just fudge the roll and have the creature score a hit!
You don’t want the fun and excitement to always be at the mercy of the polyhedrals we love so much.
All this said, once you start running games yourself, you’ll identify what works for you, what doesn’t work for you, and you’ll learn how to adapt to make the games fun not only for your players, but also for you!
As I said at the top of this article, there is nothing stopping anyone from running a game. You have the energy. You have the drive. You have the creativity. I assure you, you can do it.
You just have to take the plunge, and trust in yourself in the same way all the players have trusted in you.
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