Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting to GM

I have been running roleplaying games for a very long time.  Over thirty years now, in fact.  It’s one of the defining characteristics of my life.  Not the fact that I play these games, but that I enjoy creating immersive worlds and helping others to immerse themselves in them through the spoken word (mostly).  I say this, not to demonstrate pride, because honestly, I know many better GMs than I, but to demonstrate the immense pleasure that communicating that enjoyment brings to me.  With that said, however, I am a very different GM at 42 than I was at 8 or 16 or even 35.  Different systems have made me better.  Playing under different GMs has made me better.  Reading the thoughts of other gaming thinker-luminaries has made me better.  And yes, a willingness to fail has made me better.

A year or so ago when I first ran across Monte Cook Games’ Your Best Game Ever I thought to myself, “This would have been a really neat book to have when I was about eight years old…”  It’s a fantastic guide to roleplaying games in general and especially good for people brand new to the hobby or brand new to being a Gamemaster.  Recently, though, it occurred to me that there are some things that I personally wish I would have known, and more importantly, truly understood, when I started running games all those years ago.  I thought it might be helpful to share some of the bigger ones of those with you, our dear readers.  So without further ado…

1. Printed, published modules are not the pinnacle of adventure design.

Before anyone gets their feathers ruffled, let me qualify this statement.  I love printed modules.  I love a lot of the resources they bring to bear.  Most of them have really sexy maps, and I love really sexy maps.  Sometimes they have great ideas.  Sometimes the whole package is good (I’m looking at you, Sunless Citadel by Bruce Cordell).  But when I was younger, I thought that for MY adventures to be good, that was how I had to organize them.  That I had to have all the dialogue plotted out, and everything written down with neat stat blocks and maps and treasure already figured out and…  It was a crushing weight on my prep mental game.

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy doing all those things.  As I’ve grown as a GM, however, I’ve discovered that I don’t need to do them all pre-game.  I can do some of them as lists, pre-campaign, and some even as improvisation on the fly, and my players may never know or even if they do, they probably won’t care.  Once I figured that out, my pre-game time management and nervousness went down a whole bunch.  It was then that tools like Sly Flourish’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master helped me hone in on things that actually were useful in preparing adventures (though I started with the original edition).

2. Worldbuilding is not just the GMs job and it’s OK to let go of some of it.

I LOVE worldbuilding.  A lot.  I love coming up with lore and dreaming up vast interconnected peoples and organizations set in a fantastic and vivid backdrop.  It’s one of the primary reasons I initially got into roleplaying games with Dungeons & Dragons.  Like so many, I too read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and was blown away by how lifelike Middle Earth felt.  Dungeons & Dragons helped me to take that and make something that was “my own” little Middle Earth (or Greyhawk, or Forgotten Realms, or Krynn, or…).  I spent hours and hours drawing maps, creating NPCs, and dreaming of adventures and campaigns that would showcase the grand tapestry in my head.

For the most part, my players never got to see any of it.

See, when you do that, in order for the players to see it, one of several things has to happen.  You have to write it down to where they can read it (or perhaps in this day and age with DriveThruRPG and self-publishing, purchase it and read it).  If you don’t do that, you have to spend a lot of time monologuing and possibly hoping that in-game, the players ask the right questions of the right people to where they could get the answers that show them the beauty that you have created.  Doing that is exhausting and stressful because when they don’t (notice I didn’t say ‘if’), you will have spent all of that time on something only you will ever see (unless you go back and take the self-publishing option, of course).

I learned that a much more useful way to get to vivid worlds is that of involving your players through the use of in-game questions.  We just wrote an article covering this topic on Angel’s Citadel.  But when I figured this out, it did wonders for my in-game stress level.  I didn’t have to try and railroad my players to the things I wanted to show them without letting them feel like they were being railroaded anymore.  It was fantastic and freeing.

3. Your players, not your NPCs, are the focus of the story.

This is almost a corollary of the second point.  When you spend so much time worldbuilding and dreaming up people that make your world feel real to the characters, it is natural to become attached to them in the very same way that a player gets attached to their player characters.  There is nothing wrong with this.  However, the nature of a roleplaying game is that the player characters (and by extension, the players themselves) are the focus of the shared story that you are telling.  There are many rewards to being a GM and it is absolutely worthwhile and fun.  But the job of a GM is very different from the job of a player the way that a typical roleplaying game is structured.  The GMs job relates to setting and backdrop, nudges from the plot (or sometimes frying pans to the back of the head when players are really stuck), and support and facilitation.  They are the stage director, the sound person, the crazy one up in the rickety rafters with the spot and mood lighting, and the orchestra.  Without the GMs job being done well, the typical roleplaying game just doesn’t feel the same (much like Jaws without that little two-note riff that we all know and love before the shark eats someone).  But they (and by extension, the detailed and lovable NPCs) are not the actors up on center stage, the players are.

4. As a GM, you can say ‘no’ to players, and sometimes you should.  But ‘yes’ is almost always more interesting and fun and should be said much more often.

We’ve talked about this before as well, but I thought I might share a concrete example from my own recent experience.  I can’t remember if I mentioned it elsewhere, but I am currently running a Star Wars (Fantasy Flight Games version) campaign for Joann and another guy we know.  I’m going to let out a little bit of my Star Wars geek here, but the job was to go to Mandalore to intercept a transfer of three crates containing experimental weaponry that pirates had appropriated from Czerka Corporation and redirect it to Dathomir to their employer who works for the Black Sun crime syndicate.  I thought up a couple of solutions of how they might get the crates (in broad brush-stroke terms) and knew what resources the pirates had.  Things were going fine right up until Joann said, “We should totally just steal their ship and my brother (an NPC) could fly our ship out with us.  Then we’d have the crates and two ships.”

I froze.  Steal… the ship…  That wasn’t anywhere on my list of possible plans.  Over the next half a second, my mind raced and I thought of half a dozen different reasons and methods I could use to stop them.  I opened my mouth to relay one of them at random and out came, “Sure.  That ought to be interesting.  Let’s see what happens…”

Apparently, we’re stealing a ship now.

So we played it out.  They did, in fact, manage to steal the ship, change the transponder code registration and get it to a ‘friendly’ salvage crew after dropping off the rerouted crates on Dathomir.  They flipped the other ship for a hefty sum which they promptly applied to paying down the debt on their ship.  It was brilliant.  The NPCs were completely unprepared for it.  And most of all, my group had fun trying out a crazy idea that turned out to be not, in fact, so crazy after all.

5. As long as you truly internalize that it is not you against your players and that you are there to facilitate fun, you cannot, in fact, “cheat” as a GM.

Once again, let me clarify.  I’m not here to tell you how to run games at your table.  I’m sharing things I wish that I knew personally because my table is better for it.  The key here is ‘internalize’.  If all you are doing is paying this lip service while trying to sneakily introduce them to the Tomb of Horrors or some other meatgrinder adventure, this is not going to work.  When you truly believe that roleplaying games are a shared experience and that the GMs job is not to be out to ‘get’ their players and the players job is not to ‘beat’ the GM (there are plenty of board games for that – Descent and others come to mind rather rapidly), then the focus becomes less on grinding out mechanics and more on figuring out how to increase the level of excitement at your table by helping your players do awesome things.  Figuring out how to set up and provide those experiences that keep your players talking about them for decades.  When your players get excited about that, it’s amazingly infectious and rewarding at the same time.

So when your players are trying to do something cool that would make a better story and your dice would prevent them from doing it, don’t roll them. Note that I am not trying to suggest that there are not times when letting the dice decide things is dramatic and absolutely appropriate. It is just that sometimes, the cinematic choice is a better option. You need to try and be aware of both. When the adventure is grinding on and someone comes up with an idea that the group decides it wants to pursue, but you didn’t think of it, say yes, have fun with it, and act like it was your plan all along. This is not cheating. It’s letting the story tell what it wants to tell.

I could go on, but this has already gotten way longer than I intended.  In summary, while you may take inspiration from some of the things that I talked about in this article, the more important thing to take away is: Always reach to be better.  You are only at the pinnacle of your skill as a GM if you stop trying to learn and get better.  This is an incredibly vibrant hobby and it’s getting better and more diverse all the time.  The more you’re willing to be open to new techniques and systems and such, the more opportunity you are going to have to have fun with your players. Happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

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